Why you aren't as happy as you could be

by Dorian Minors

May 29, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


You could be as happy as a lottery winner (without winning the lottery) according to science. Since David Gilbert and his colleagues’ seminal work in 1998, we’ve known that people are awful at predicting the emotional impact of future…

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You could be as happy as a lottery winner (without winning the lottery) according to science. Since David Gilbert and his colleagues’ seminal work in 1998, we’ve known that people are awful at predicting the emotional impact of future events. Specifically, we assume we’ll feel more intense emotion, for longer, when we think about emotionally charged events in the future. This is called, impact bias and it’s the reason we should all go back to asking our parents what to do. These events could be fairly mundane:

  • Research shows that ten minutes after getting a job (or getting turned down for a job) we’re almost back at baseline happiness.
  • That two months after a breakup (on average), we’re over it.

Or ridiculous:

  • Other work showed that, someone who wins the lottery and someone who never did end up equally as happy a year later, and both only slightly more happy than a paraplegic


Well, we think there could be a few reasons why we so significantly overestimate how things will make us feel.

  • Firstly, emotions are a motivating behaviour. They’re designed to make us DO things. What better way to make you do something than by enhancing the motivation (psychologists call this a motivation distortion)?
  • Secondly, we have the effect of focalism. Essentially, we tend to only think about the event alone and fail to factor in surrounding influences like time, other events or our social support for example. Focusing on anything makes it more exaggerated that it may in fact be.

But possibly, the most interesting explanation again comes from Dan Gilbert, and I encourage you to watch his TED talk (here). Essentially, our brains are experience simulators (the part about a fingers length directly above the outermost point of our eye, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). If we don’t have a good idea of what something will be like (i.e. we haven’t done it before), we’ll probably mess up how we’ll react to it. Considering how different events can be (even one break up to the next), it’s easy to see how our brains might mess up the simulation.

Our brains synthesise happiness

But more than that, our brain also wants to protect us, so it has a bunch of unconscious processes (called immune neglect, for some reason), that cushions our emotional experience. When something happens, our brains kick in, and actively work to reduce our unhappiness and get us back to our baseline by rationalising the event. However, this also works to reduce our happiness somewhat. Dan Gilbert calls it the synthesis of happiness, but it could more accurately be called the synthesis of normality.

Don’t want to lose happiness to your brain?

Well, the way to maximise our happiness is to insist to ourselves that there was no other option. Essentially, if we think we had freedom of choice, we get some natural happiness from things that go our way although, the more choices we have, the less happiness we get. The less we believe we had freedom of choice, the more our brains synthesise happiness instead. Put another way, more permanent choices result in more synthesised happiness. This is related to the free-choice paradigm and the paradox of choice (which we talk about here).  So, I suppose that quote, every cloud has a silver lining is more true than we know. Not necessarily because every choice has its merits, but because our brains make it so.

Do you like learning how your brain is constantly messing with your chi? Well, you’ll love these articles then. Learn how one weird glitch has been called ‘the most important determinant of whether you like someone’. Or how another strange function is responsible for about a third of people completely mistrusting their own senses. Or perhaps, why everyone always ‘knew it all along’, the bias that messes your advice up all this time. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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